The lingering regret over the way N.C. State started ACC play had two weeks to fester and simmer, catalyzed by a rare speech from quarterback Jacoby Brissett. The Wolfpack needed all of nine plays to exorcise those particular demons Saturday as well as a few others.
A first-quarter offensive explosion helped erase the bad taste left by losses to Louisville and Virginia Tech while erasing a long losing streak at Wake Forest with a 35-17 win, the Wolfpack's first in Winston-Salem since 2001.
For a win so long in coming, it couldn't have started much more quickly. Brissett spun out of a sack to find freshman Maurice Trowell for a 59-yard touchdown on N.C. State's third play before the Wolfpack scored on its next two plays – an 85-yard Matt Dayes scamper and a 58-yard pass to Nyheim Hines.
Dayes tacked on another long run before the quarter was out as Wake Forest's defense, going back to last week's loss at North Carolina, somehow allowed 56 points in less than 49 minutes of action.
The Deacons, who may not have another win on their schedule, will have to live with that for another week. The Wolfpack finally shed some burdens of its own.
“It hurts when you lose,” N.C. State coach Dave Doeren said. “It hurts, especially if you have a little regret, like there's something else you could have done. I think everybody feels that way when you lose a game by one touchdown like we did to Louisville, or you're up on a team you think you can beat and you let them back into the game. There's regret in those kind of losses.”
After the loss in Blacksburg, with an open week upcoming, Brissett spoke to the entire team for the first time since the season he sat out after transferring from Florida. The soft-spoken quarterback isn't the player you'd expect to find giving a rah-rah speech to the troops, which only underlines the gravity of the situation after the Virginia Tech loss, and the stakes for the Wolfpack on Saturday.
There have been, with the benefit of hindsight, four must-win games in Doeren's time at N.C. State.
The first was last season, at home, against Boston College, with Doeren still looking for his first ACC win. The second, immediately after, was at Syracuse, where Doeren finally got it.
The Louisville game earlier this month was a chance to validate the 4-0 record N.C. State compiled against lesser competition. The loss did the opposite.
That left Saturday's game at Wake Forest once again in the “imperative” category, because losing again in Winston-Salem – with Clemson and Florida State still on the schedule – would put the Wolfpack in an impossible position going forward. Five minutes into the game, it was clearly not an issue.
While the Wolfpack left little doubt Saturday, the defense reasonably stout throughout, it still faces plenty of questions.
Which was the real N.C. State offense, the one that scored on four of its first five possessions or the one that stumbled through the final three quarters, letting Wake Forest hang around as it punted five times and missed two field goals?
Which was the real Brissett, the one spinning out of tackles and flinging the ball downfield, or the one who finished 10-for-22 and was the only person in the stadium who didn't see Trowell uncovered in the end zone?
Which was the real Matt Dayes, the one who danced through the defense for 144 yards on his first three carries, or the one that ground out 61 yards on his final 13 carries?
Only one answer to all of those questions will suffice with unbeaten Clemson coming to Carter-Finley Stadium next week. The Wolfpack will need four quarters like the first one Saturday.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock